January 25, 2018

FTV: The Battle of Greenland – part 2

 

         Marius Jensen and the two Eskimo sledge drivers, Mikael and William, surprised two German hunters at a wayside hut at Germania Harbor on Sabine Island.  The surprised Germans fled on foot to their secret weather station at Hansa Bay, some five miles away.  After a quick examination of the hunter’s hut, Jensen knew that the situation on Greenland’s east coast had just taken a turn for the worse.  His two Eskimo companions had been raised in Scoresby Sound hundreds of miles from contact with other cultures.  Their Christian upbringing had left them with no concept of war or humans killing each other.  The Bible says ‘Thou shall not kill’ and in this secluded part of the world, it was inconceivable to them that men would kill other men.  Jensen rousted Mikael and William and insisted they evacuate before the Germans returned.  They were tired and their dogs were tired, but Jensen got them to at least cross the open ice to the nearest hunting hut to the south at Cape Wynn.  Surely they could rest the night there before heading the fifty miles back to Eskimoness to report what they had found.

    In the arctic, sledge dogs are the early warning system that alerts sledge drivers of other teams, musk ox, or polar bears.  When the dogs began barking furiously just past midnight, Jensen knew that he had been wrong about the Germans.  They had followed their tracks across the bay and were now approaching the hut.  Jensen and the two Eskimos instinctively grabbed their rifles and made a futile attempt to harness at least some of the dogs.  It was too late and they were forced to scramble up the hill behind the hut.  Jensen sent Mikael and William on toward the next hunting hut 12 miles to the south while he waited, shivering in the dark to see what the Germans would do.  At 2 AM, with the Germans enjoying the bread, jam and coffee they had left behind, Jensen reluctantly set off toward Eskimoness leaving his gear, sledges, dogs, and journal behind.  The Germans now had more intel on the Sledge Patrol than the Sledge Patrol had on the Germans.

    By 11 AM on March 13th, Poulson had spotted Marius approaching Eskimoness on foot while he was still some three miles away.  He sent out Eli Knudson with a sledge to pick him up.  Knudson was from the Ella Island detachment and had come north for a few weeks to learn more about Morse Code and how to operate the radio.  Once he grasped how serious the situation was becoming, Poulson sent two dispatches to governor Eske Brun via radio transmissions through Scoresby Sound (Brun and the rest of the population were on the other side of the ice capped island on the southwestern coast).  In turn, he received instructions to gather as much information about the German party as possible.  The Germans were inexperienced dog handlers so they spent the next days learning how to handle their captured sledge teams.  Poulson rightly figured they would mount an expedition to disable their radio transmitter so he formulated a multi-step plan.  First, he dispatched Eskimos Aparte and William to Scoresby Sound – they were not going to be any help if it became a fire fight because Poulson had been told to keep the Eskimos out of any combat.  Peter Nielsen was still on a solo patrol to the far north so he dispatched Marias Jensen and Eli Knudson north to find him before he stumbled upon the Germans and was captured.  Poulson himself went north with the Eskimo Evald on a reconnaissance mission to see if the Germans were heading toward Eskimoness yet.   This left Henri Rudi, Kurt Olsen and William the Eskimo to man the Eskimoness station and continue the weather broadcasts.  By March 21, Poulson and Evald had returned to Eskimoness.  The group set up three action stations outside in the event of an assault by the Germans.  If Poulson had thought that the Germans might just stay put on Sabine Island, the ruckus the dogs put up on March 23 proved him wrong.

    Through the darkness, Poulson hailed the Germains as they reached the shoreline below the house.  He was greatly disturbed that Lt. Ritter asked to talk to him by name.  Poulson played blind man’s poker with his unseen enemy and told Ritter that Poulson was not there.  Ritter then asked if he could speak to Herr Rudi.  Finally, Ritter asked if the Sledge Patrol meant to resist with force.  When Poulson said yes, a hail of tracer bullets lit up the night and the Eskimoness detachment went into survival mode.  They had all made caches of survival gear away from the house and being hopelessly outgunned, they scattered.  Poulson found one of the caches opened as he escaped so he knew that at least one of the others had also survived the attack.  Utilizing the hunting huts, Poulson made a 150 mile trek on foot and with his meager supplies.  He arrived in rough physical shape but still managed to make his report to Brun from the Ella Island station via radio through Scoresby Sound.  He wondered if Rudi and Olsen were dead but unknown to him, he had over taken and passed them while they slept in one of the hunter’s huts enroute.  

    Olsen and Rudi made slower progress than Poulson because at age 55, Rudi tired more quickly than Olsen.  He tried to get Olsen to leave him behind, but Olsen would have none of that.  Resting in a hunter’s hut one morning, they heard a dog sledge approach but instead of hearing German voices, they heard, “Kurt, don’t shoot.  It’s Peter.”  The tale he told them made their hearts sink.  Eli Knudson and Marius Jensen had indeed found Nielson and the three of them had headed back south toward Eskimoness.  As they approached Eli Knudson’s old hunting hut at Sadodden, they were surprised to find the German party encamped there on their way back to Hansa Bay after they had burned down the Eskimoness station.  Knudson had arrived first and tried to make a break for an ice ridge.  Ritter commanded his men to shoot the dogs but in the process, Knudson was also killed.  When Olson and Jensen arrived a few hours later, they walked into the same trap and were taken prisoner.  Knudson’s body was laid to rest in a low sod structure that he himself built to store food while Nielssen and Jensen were taken back to Hansa Bay.  Ritter had spent time in the north at Spitsbergen, Norway and felt an affinity for these rustic sledge drivers from Greenland.  He never quite forgave himself for what he felt had been the useless killing of Knudson.

    To the dismay of Ritter’s pro-Nazi comrades, Jensen convinced Ritter that Olsen’s sledge driving skills were so poor that he could be trusted to return to Sadodden and give Knudson a proper burial without fear of him escaping.  Olsen was ordered to do so but to return when he was finished.  Of course, the plan all along had been to keep right on going to warn Eskimoness station, which they had no way of knowing had already been destroyed.  Jensen agreed to teach the Germans how to manage the captured dog sledges while he plotted his escape.  Ritter took Jensen farther north to inspect other places they could relocate should the Americans come to bomb the weather station at Hansa Bay.  The longer they were separated from the rest of the Germans, the less guarded Ritter became.  Jensen then gave the German raiding party advice on a route to Ella Island that would purposely slow them down.  After the party left, he turned the tables on Ritter and was able to take a dog sledge on a quicker route to warn the Sledge Patrol who had retreated to Ella Island.  Jensen had no way of knowing that a radio man named Ziebell and eight Eskimo dog sledge teams had already arrived at Ella Island to help Poulson and the remaining Sledge Patrol retreat to Scoresby Sound.

    With the Germans wallowing in deep snow on the longer route to Ella Island, Jensen got there in plenty of time to warn the patrol, only to find they were already gone.  The three circles drawn on the door of the station told him they had gone south.   Then, in a move that would surprise none of the other men of the Sledge Patrol, he went back the 70 miles to where he had left Lt. Ritter.  Together they retraced their steps back to Ella Island hoping they would not run into the German raiding party.  They passed within five miles of the Ella Island post unseen and proceeded to make due haste to Scoresby Sound to be reunited with the rest of the Sledge Patrol.  Ritter realized that in coming back for him, Jensen had saved his life, something he doubted the German party would have done.  For him the war was over, but the Sledge Patrol fully expected the Germans to pursue them all the way to Scoresby Sound.

    Instead of risking the Germans bringing the fight into a village of peaceful Eskimos, Poulson moved is men farther north where they could intercept the raiding party.  While they were awaiting the German invaders who never arrived at Scoresby Sound, Poulson and his men were pleasantly surprised when Marius and Ritter did.  Remarkably, Marius had first left Sabine Island with Ritter on April 5th  and by the time he had abandoned Ritter, returned for him after finding Ella Island empty and then returned to Scoresby Sound on May 13th, he had traveled nearly 800 miles in in 38 days.  Most remarkable of all – most of the trip was accomplished with a team of only eight dogs.  Imagine traveling the frozen Lake Superior shoreline from Little Girl’s Point to Sault Ste, Marie and back again in a little over five weeks.

    Poulson decided that he would send Ziebell, Marius, and Olsen back to Ella Island before the spring break up so they could assess any further German threat.  They found Ella Island station just as they had left it, the Germans having retreated back to Hansa Bay.  The Germans had left pictures of Hitler and Mussolini on the walls and the inscription “We are the greatest soldiers in the world.”  When the weather and conditions improved, an amphibious aircraft had picked up the remaining troops and returned them to Germany.  When an American icebreaker finally made it to Hansa Bay, they found one survivor on the German occupation – the expedition doctor named Sensse.  He was wearing a tattered anorak with a bullet hole in the shoulder the name “Eli Knudson” on it.  The doctor was listening to records on a wind up player when they found him.  He told the Americans that he had made one last attempt to try and locate Lt. Ritter and had lost his team when they went through the ice.  He had survived on what he could scrounge from the hunting huts, including Knudson’s clothing.  By the time he got back to Sabine Island, the rest of the Germans had already left, thinking he was probably dead.

    This certainly wasn’t a skirmish that decided the outcome of World War II, but it is a testimony to a few brave souls who were asked to do the impossible in a land where merely living is an everyday battle.  If these men had been Finns, we would certainly say they had ‘Sissu’.  

 

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